For the Bible’s authors, it was pretty clear how marriage works.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s run for the White House has put this traditional Christian view of submission in the spotlight. Bachmann, like many conservative Christians, believes that wives should submit to their husbands. That has led some to ask whether she would have to obey her husband when it comes to public policy.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says that’s a silly question. He points to Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, who famously said she ran the country and her husband ran their household.
“I’d like to have Dame Thatcher come out of retirement, come over here and straighten out our problems,” Land said.
Other Christians insist that men should be in charge of all areas of life, politics included, while others say men and women are equal partners and those who disagree are misinterpreting the Bible.
Most who support women’s submissiveness point to a verse in the New Testament book of Ephesians: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” But that policy plays out differently in various households.
Scripture doesn’t give husbands a right to be jerks, said the Rev. Jeremy Rose, pastor of the Axis Church in Nashville. And it doesn’t mean women have to do whatever their husbands say.
Instead, Rose said, men are supposed to love their wives and put their wives’ needs first when making decisions.
“If you quote that verse to your wife, you are not in a good place,” said Rose, 32.
If the Roses disagree, it’s Jeremy’s view that prevails, although he said he breaks the news as gently as possible.
He believes that men are in charge in the church and in their homes, a view known as complementarianism. It often appeals to younger men like Rose, teaching them to grow up and be better husbands and fathers.
And he would be fine with a woman president. So would his wife, Jill Rose, 31. She thinks that most people don’t understand what the Christian idea of submission means.
“Men and women are created equally,” she said. “People have this stigma of the male chauvinist domineering over the wife, and that’s not what the biblical perspective is at all.”
Instead, Jill Rose said, the Bible passage about submission is about trust and respect, something that was missing in the early days of the Roses’ marriage. Jeremy Rose spent most of his time at work or out hunting, playing sports and hanging with his friends. His wife drove herself to the hospital to deliver their second child while he wrapped up a softball game.
“It was a very low point,” she said.
Things changed after Jeremy Rose took a class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. The class focused on an often-overlooked part of the Ephesians passage. Women are to submit, according to the passage, while men are to love their wives in sacrificial ways.
That point is often lost in discussions about submission, said Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
“The message is not that women are to be doormats and men to be dominators, but that husbands and wives are to be mutually supportive and attend to each other’s needs,” Levine said.
Priscilla Hofmann, 29, and her husband moved to Nashville from Boston two years ago for his work, leaving her relatives behind. She handles the family’s finances, and the couple make most decisions together. But her husband is the leader of the home.
“We have leaders here on Earth to do good for us,” she said. “People forget that with leadership comes a lot of responsibility — he is the one who is held accountable if it all crashes and burns.”
Hofmann, too, is fine with having women leaders outside the home.
She discovered the idea of women submitting to their husbands while studying Calvinism in college. She said the concept is based on trust.
“I really do trust him inherently to make decisions on my behalf,” she said. “I would never be married to someone who I didn’t respect and trust.”
'Husbands are called to lead'
Denny Burk is editor for the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which promotes the complementarian point of view. Burk says God’s plan is for men to lead their homes.
“It’s not that one person is more or less valuable, but they do have different responsibilities,” he said. “It means that husbands are called to lead, provide for and protect their families.”
Burk says complementarians agree that women should submit to men at home and in the church. Some, like Burk, also believe that idea applies to all areas of life.
“All things being equal, it would be better for the man to be the leader,” he said.
Mimi Haddad, president of the Minneapolis-based Christians for Biblical Equality, says that people who believe women have to submit to their husbands are misreading the Bible. The main point of Ephesians, she said, is that men and women love and submit to each other.
“The word ‘submit’ means voluntary submission. It doesn’t mean obedience,” she said. “Unilateral authority doesn’t lead to happiness.”
And even if a husband is kind and loving, wives are still seen as second-class citizens, said Heidi Huebner Weimer.
Weimer, 34, her husband and 10 kids live in Spring Hill. She heard about the idea of wives submitting to their husbands while growing up as a Southern Baptist. The Southern Baptist statement of belief, known as the Baptist Faith and Message, was amended in 1998 to add a section that wives should graciously submit to their husbands.
That idea was reinforced while she attended meetings of Campus Crusade for Christ at Auburn University. Men in the group were told to lead, while the women were told to obey.
“I felt like I was being ungodly for not buying into it,” she said.
What she objected to most was the implication that God talked only to men and not to women, and that a man’s point of view mattered most.
“If two people are hearing different things, the woman must be mistaken,” she said. These days, she and her husband see themselves as equal partners, a view known as egalitarianism.
They make decisions by consensus. Weimer approves of teaching men that they need to be more involved as fathers and husbands. But she doesn’t think women need to be put down in the process.